For many Americans, 2020 has been one of the most challenging years of their lives. The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has completely upended societal norms, sent the unemployment rate to more than eight-decade highs, and cost the lives of more than 173,000 Americans.
Work to combat the disease is ongoing in laboratories around the globe. Meanwhile, to fight the historic financial malaise brought about by COVID-19, lawmakers passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in late March.
The CARES Act hasn't done enough for the average American
The $2.2 trillion price tag attached to the CARES Act made it by far the costliest piece of relief legislation ever to come out of Washington. It ultimately supplied around $500 billion to aid distressed industries, gave roughly $350 billion in loans to small businesses, allotted $100 billion to hospitals, and doled out $260 billion to the unemployment benefits program. This $260 billion is what allowed unemployment benefits to increase an extra $600 a week between April 1 and July 31.
The CARES Act also provided $300 billion in direct stimulus payments to working Americans and senior citizens receiving Social Security. These Economic Impact Payments (as they're officially known) totaled as much as $1,200 per person or $2,400 per couple, with an added $500 for each dependent under the age of 17.
Throwing a record amount of cash at an unprecedented problem sounded like a good idea in late March, and it probably did quite a bit to help avoid even more small-business bankruptcies than we've witnessed. But the CARES Act did little to help the average American. A Money/Morning Consult survey in late April found that roughly three-quarters of recipients burned through their stimulus money in four weeks or less.
With enhanced unemployment benefits having ended and the U.S. unemployment rate still hovering above 10%, there's little doubt that another round of direct aid to Americans and small businesses is needed -- and lawmakers agree.
There are major differences between the HEROES and HEALS Acts
The problem is, Democrats and Republicans can't seem to agree on what should be included in the next stimulus package.
In May, the Democrat-led House of Representatives introduced the HEROES Act, which came with a jaw-dropping price tag of close to $3.5 trillion. The HEROES Act would set aside money for state and local governments; extend the $600 a week enhanced unemployment benefit though January 2021; create a $200 billion Heroes Fund for essential workers; apportion $175 billion to aid families struggling to pay their mortgage, rent, and/or utility bills; and give another round of direct stimulus payments to Americans.
Meanwhile, Republicans unveiled the HEALS Act last month. Priced at roughly $1 trillion, the HEALS Act allocates funds for additional Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans to small businesses; parcels out $105 billion to schools and universities; and reduces the enhancement of unemployment benefits to $200 a week for a period of 60 days, after which point a combination of federal and state benefits will replace 70% of a worker's wages. It also funds a second round of stimulus to workers and seniors.
Aside from the nearly $2.5 trillion funding difference between these two bills, there are other holdups, too. For instance, the HEROES Act makes undocumented workers with an individual taxpayer identification number eligible to receive stimulus money, whereas the HEALS Act does not. Likewise, the HEALS Act introduces the idea of liability shield protection for businesses, which House Democrats aren't entirely on board with.
Suffice it to say, the HEROES Act and HEALS Act are miles apart, and weeks of discussion to reconcile these two bills haven't led to much progress.
A new COVID-19 "skinny" bill is missing one key component
Though there's a lot of variance between these two bills, there's also one important similarity. Both the HEROES Act and HEALS Act called for a second round of direct stimulus payments to workers and seniors, with the same maximum payouts of $1,200 per individual and $2,400 per couple. Though there were some differences on dependent payouts and who would qualify for stimulus money, support for a second round of direct payments was viewed as the foundation upon which future negotiations would be built.
Yet, according to a new skinny stimulus proposal that's gaining steam on Capitol Hill, this foundational piece could be left out.
With mounting pressure to get something done coming from both sides of the political aisle, it's looking likelier that lawmakers may attempt to pass a "skinny" COVID-19 relief bill in the coming days or weeks. A skinny bill would contain some important provisions, such as PPP loans for small businesses, a reinstatement of enhanced unemployment benefits at $300 a week through Dec. 27, funding for schools, and added cash for testing and vaccines.
However, a skinny bill wouldn't contain all the provisions currently in the HEROES or HEALS Acts. Most notably, direct stimulus payments to working Americans and seniors would be omitted. Mind you, I write this as of Wednesday evening, Aug. 19, and things can change at the rap of a gavel on Capitol Hill. But based on ongoing reports, it sounds like Americans may not receive stimulus money anytime soon if a skinny bill is passed.
Why direct payments aren't being written into the skinny stimulus package given that both parties have essentially agreed to additional payouts is really anyone's guess at this point. However, with the Senate on recess until after Labor Day (Sept. 7), it's unlikely that serious progress will be made on key stimulus differences until after this date. Then you have to factor in the multiple weeks it can take for the Internal Revenue Service to get everything in order to disburse stimulus payments. It therefore seems unlikely that workers and seniors will see a second round of stimulus payments hitting their bank accounts until October at the earliest.